Florence Rabe Jacoby, a Hollywood actress who used the name Florence Bates, the second child of Jewish immigrant parents, was born on April 15, 1888, in San Antonio, Texas, where her father was the owner of an antique store. Florence showed advanced musical talent as a child, but a hand injury ended her intended career as a pianist. She graduated from high school in San Antonio in 1903, then enrolled in the University of Texas, where she earned a degree in math in 1906. From 1906 to 1909 she pursued a career in schoolteaching and social work. Around 1909 she met and married her first husband and soon gave up her career to raise their daughter. When her marriage ended in divorce, however, she was enticed by a family friend and San Antonio judge to use his private library to prepare to become a lawyer. She studied for six months, passed the bar exam, and in 1914 became one of the first woman lawyers in Texas. She practiced law for four years in San Antonio.
After the death of her parents, Florence left the legal profession and joined her sister in running their father's antique business in San Antonio. Buying for the store took her to Europe and Asia, where she utilized her proficiency in foreign languages. Also during this time she became a radio commentator with a bilingual program designed to foster good relations between the United States and Mexico. In 1929, following the stock market crash and the death of her sister, Florence closed the antique shop. That same year she married William F. Jacoby, a wealthy Texan in the oil business. With him she lived in Mexico and El Paso; when he lost his business holdings and fortune, they moved to Los Angeles and opened a bakery. This business remained successful until the Jacobys sold it in the 1940s.
Soon after moving to California, Florence Jacoby and a friend participated in an open reading for a new stage production at the Pasadena Playhouse. From this audition, her first for a play, she earned the role of Miss Bates in a play based on Jane Austen's Emma. The success of this production and her popularity with its audiences allowed her to continue local theater work in the late 1930s with the Pasadena Playhouse acting group. After her role in Emma, she took the name Florence Bates because she thought her first character had brought her good luck. She subsequently earned the lead role in O Evening Star in Pasadena, and her agent began planning her career in films. Bates got bit parts in several features but continued to focus on local theater until 1939, when she met and did a screen test for Alfred Hitchcock. Impressed with her talent and surprised to learn that her training had not come from the stages of London and New York, he cast her as the vain American dowager Mrs. Van Hopper in his 1940 film Rebecca. Directed by Hitchcock, Bates made her movie debut in this release with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and from it she became a well-known character actor and went on to roles in more than fifty films.
Her movie career began after her fiftieth birthday, and for the rest of her life she enjoyed a variety of comic and dramatic supporting roles with some of Hollywood's biggest names. She shared the screen with Ingrid Bergman (Saratoga Trunk, 1943), Claudette Colbert (Since You Went Away, 1944), Gypsie Rose Lee (The Belle of the Yukon, 1944), Errol Flynn (San Antonio, 1945), Kirk Douglas (My Dear Secretary, 1948), and Ronald Reagan (The Girl from Jones Beach, 1949). Her general stage persona was a plump, matronly character. She frequently played wealthy women (His Butler's Sister, 1943; Slightly Dangerous, 1943; Cluny Brown, 1946) but also ranged to play a gypsy (They Got Me Covered, 1943), several maids (Winter Meeting, 1948; The Judge Steps Out, 1949), and a murderer (The Brasher Doubloon, 1947). She also had several roles as a humorously obnoxious mother-in-law (Love Crazy, 1941; My Heart Belongs to Daddy, 1942; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947) and as a landlady (Love and Learn, 1947; Portrait of Jennie, 1948). Florence Bates enjoyed her work in films and was grateful for the financial, social, and professional success it gave her. Soon after her movie career started, her daughter and only child died from childbirth complications; Bates credited her new career with easing much of the pain of this loss. She also never forgot the origins of her success and throughout her life maintained ties to the Pasadena Playhouse, attending plays, endowing scholarships, and offering encouragement to local actors.
She made some radio and television appearances after her film career was established, but it was the movie screen that made her known to the public. She continued in films into the 1950s, although after the death of her husband in 1951 her own health and happiness declined. Florence Bates died of a heart attack on January 31, 1954, in Burbank, California. She was survived by a granddaughter, who lived in Texas and inherited the actress's fortune.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Alcalde (magazine of the Ex-Students' Association of the University of Texas), October 1952. De Witt Bodeen, "Florence Bates," Films in Review 17 (December 1966). Larry Langman, Encyclopedia of American Film Comedy (New York: Garland, 1987). New York Times, February 1, 1954. San Antonio Express, August 15, 1948. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Florence Bates).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Debbie Mauldin Cottrell,
“Jacoby, Florence Rabe,”
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